Monday, December 08, 2008

81st Legislature: More of the same, with "fewer rhetorical fireworks."

Lege v. TxDOT rematch might be quieter this time


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

Transportation wasn't supposed to be a big deal during the 2007 Texas legislative session. Then it was.

The Senate transportation chairman stirred the waters in January, calling on Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson to step down. Then a rookie senator who had served on the Texas Department of Transportation's governing board came out against private toll road deals, calling for a moratorium. Dallas and Houston folks told state transportation officials to keep their hands off our toll roads.

It was a session-long brouhaha that left TxDOT's powers and its reputation diminished. Later that year, the agency, buffeted already by federal funding cuts, discovered it had made a billion-dollar accounting error. Then Williamson, only 55, died on Dec. 30.

So, as the Legislature gets set to gather in five weeks, what now?

Expect another big transportation session, but with a chastened TxDOT and fewer rhetorical fireworks. Here's what's in the works:
  • TxDOT on the griddle. The agency is taking its 12-year turn before the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, with a final report expected Dec. 16 and legislation to follow. This could result in abolition or reconfiguration of the five-member, gubernatorially appointed Transportation Commission, and more formal legislative oversight of the agency. Meanwhile, the Senate will be deciding whether to confirm Williamson's replacement, Deirdre Delisi.
  • Local bucks. With TxDOT strapped, a coalition of local governments, business groups and mass transit advocates is pushing for metro areas to get authority to impose new fees locally for transportation. The plans percolating include increased vehicle registration and inspection fees, additional local sales taxes on car purchases and maybe even a "newcomer" tax. In all cases, there'd have to be a local election to approve the new levies.
  • Money matters. The Lege will consider stopping the "diversion" of about $800 million annually in transportation money to other state needs. Additionally, lawmakers will consider using general state funds to back $5 billion in highway borrowing authorized by voters in 2007's Proposition 12. If Congress sends some stimulus money this way, that will help TxDOT's bottom line as well. What about that hardy perennial, raising the state's 20-cents-a-gallon gas tax and/or allowing it to increase with inflation? Not likely. Again.
  • More-atorium? A two-year brake on private toll road deals (with a dozen or so exceptions) expires Sept. 1. But so does legal authority to do long-term leases for toll roads on state highways (again, with those exceptions). So the Legislature will have to do something with this. Just what, though, isn't clear.
  • This-and-that. Will the state put money in the Rail Relocation Fund voters authorized in 2005? With state finances tight, this remains a tough sell. And look for a bill removing the requirement that Capital Metro get voter approval before expanding its rail system, unless doing so requires taking on long-term debt.
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